A former college professor in Texas has sued her ex-employer for allegedly violating her First Amendment rights by firing her in retaliation for criticising former Vice President Mike Pence and university officials on her personal Twitter account.
Now-former history professor Lora Burnett was terminated from Collin College earlier this year after she chronicled her frustrations with the university’s Covid-19 policies and handling of free-speech issues on campus, according to the lawsuit.
The posts were sent on her “personal device, outside the classroom, and on her own time”, according to the lawsuit. “The tweets were unrelated to, and did not affect, her teaching in her classroom or her other duties as a faculty member at Collin College.”
She also criticised Mr Pence on her personal Twitter account during a vice presidential debate in October 2020, writing that “the moderator needs to talk over Mike Pence until he shuts his little demon mouth up”.
Her post allegedly outraged Texas State Representative Jeff Leach, who texted college president Neil Matkin to see whether her position was “paid with taxpayer dollars”, according to the lawsuit.
In response, Mr Matkin reportedly replied that he would “deal with” Ms Burnett.
Ms Burnett also criticised Mr Matkin’s response to the public health crisis, arguing that the college “intentionally obscured” its impact on the campus, including delayed news of a Covid-19-related death of a student, public records requests for infections and deaths on campus, and the announcement of a faculty member’s death in a campus email with a subject line “College Update and Happy Thanksgiving!”
In one email, Mr Matkin said “the effects of this pandemic have been blown utterly out of proportion across our nation and reported with unfortunate sensationalism and few facts regardless of which news outlet one tunes into,” according to the lawsuit.
On 13 January, Ms Burnett posted an obituary for a former Collin College professor, adding: “Another @collincollege professor has died of COVID.”
Seven days later, she received a “Level 1 warning” from the administration, saying that the post is “not accurate” because the professor was a “former employee of the college and not a Collin College professor”.
On 16 February, Mr Leach also posted about Ms Burnett’s termination on his Twitter account before it was announced to her – which he characterised as a “BIG WIN” – “making clear his involvement in her termination”, the lawsuit argues.
She replied that she had not been terminated; he responded by posting an image of a ticking clock.
On 25 February, “the College notified Burnett that her contract would not be renewed, citing ‘insubordination, making private personnel issues public that impair the college’s operations, and personal criticisms of co-workers, supervisors, and/or those who merely disagree with you,’” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit argues that her termination is part of a pattern at the college, where at least three other faculty members were fired or disciplined for “speaking out on important public issues”.
Suzanne Jones, one of those former professors, sued the college in September alleging that her contract was not renewed over her criticisms of the school’s pandemic response.
“Because Collin College does not have a tenure system for professors, Burnett and others had no protection from Collin College’s custom or practice of terminating professors for speaking out on important public issues” resulting in the “unlawful discipline of professors exercising their First Amendment rights,” according to the lawsuit.
The college “created an unconstitutional custom or practice of terminating instructors who commented on matters of public concern in ways with which the College disagrees,” the suit alleges.
“Professors like me shouldn’t lose our jobs just because we have opinions,” Ms Burnett said in a statement through Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
“In the classroom, my job is to teach the material and to hold open a space where students can freely express themselves and fully engage with the ideas we’re talking about,” she said. “Outside the classroom, I have the right to express myself, too. I have the right to fully engage with any public debate. That right is for all of us, not just for professors whose politics match up with their college administrators.”
A spokesperson for Collin College told The Independent that the college “is committed to preserving the rights and privileges of our employees.”
“As such, board-approved policies and procedures guide decisions pertaining to academic freedoms and activities, which are strictly followed during our annual, multi-level reviews for renewals and non-renewals of faculty contracts.” the statement said. “While it is regrettable that a former faculty member has chosen to file a lawsuit, the College stands firm in our belief in our faculty review process and looks forward to defending our actions in court. Out of respect for our former employee and due to pending litigation, we will make no further public statement regarding this matter.”
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